Clare Mullaney: Bringing Light to Disability Studies Within the English Department
In a world catered to able-bodied people, it is important to learn about and discuss disabilities and how to improve accessibility. Clare Mullaney, an assistant professor of English and disability rhetorics, aims to expand the discussion about disabilities through her research. English Unbound had the opportunity to interview Mullaney regarding her research in disability studies.
When asked about her interest in disability studies, Mullaney stated that her own disability identity during college made her curious about merging her interest in disabilities with her English major. She said, “It really started when I was in college. I was contending with my own disability identity. I was very sick when I started college, and I was also getting very, very invested in my English major. I considered these two things to be separate.” She later learned from a faculty member that disability studies is a field that delves into the representation of disability in literature, leading her to pursue disability studies in graduate school. She said, “I was toying with the idea of pursuing English in graduate school, or possibly becoming a professor, and I wondered, how could I blend these two interests in really productive ways? Since then, lived experience, activism, advocacy work and academic work have come together in both my teaching and research.”
Mullaney tries to imagine disability outside of a medical framework. “Rather than thinking about disability as something bad that we might cure or eliminate in some way, [disability studies] thinks about how people with disabilities challenge us to re-envision the world as we know it, whether that means the design of a building or even the way that we communicate,” Mullaney said. “My research is interested in the way that disabled people challenge conventional notions of authorship and readership, really pushing the boundaries of the book in new directions.”
Mullaney tries to relate her disability studies research to the classes she teaches. To Mullaney, “Literature foregrounds a person’s lived experience with disability in a way that medicine does not, as medical frameworks might try to silence certain voices.”
She teaches a disability narratives course where she and her students explore different kinds of disability narratives. Mullaney said that narratives about disability are usually presented as a way to progress a plot “through a narrative of tragedy or triumph.” Mullaney challenges this notion by asking the question, “Can we understand what disability is outside of the triumph or tragedy narrative?”
One way Mullaney challenges traditional ideas about disability is by acknowledging the connections between physical and mental disability.
She said, “The condition of the body often affects one’s mental or emotional state and vice versa, so a lot of disability scholars have started to use the term ‘bodymind’ to convey the ways that impairment exists in both the mind and body together. My research tries to think about the mind and body simultaneously.”
When reflecting on how her research has impacted her, Mullaney said that her research has helped her understand herself and enabled her to be a kinder and more patient person.
Mullaney’s research has caused her to try to improve accessibility on Clemson’s campus. She runs a disability studies group, which discusses readings in the field while also initiating disability activism on campus. The group encourages conversations about COVID-19 and its impact even as people are moving forward.
“We’ve talked about COVID and the way it disproportionately affects disabled students, faculty and staff,” she said. Mullaney recognizes the contradictions of discussing disability in academic spaces that routinely privilege ability. “We’re living in a paradox by talking about disability in a space that doesn’t want disability in it.”
For students that are interested in disability studies, Mullaney encourages them to email her at firstname.lastname@example.org to join the disability studies working group, and she recommends registering for disability studies courses that will hopefully become more prevalent in the next year.
Written By: Alli Jennings